A grand tour of Mexico

TRaditional procession in Oaxaca
Oaxaca has rich traditions and its people are kind and hospitable

Hospitable, beautiful and awash with fascinating archaeological sites – Mexico has it all. Alice Gråhns reports.

When friends visiting Mexico for the first time ask me where to begin, I tell them: go to Oaxaca, one of the most scenically beautiful, historically interesting and simply enjoyable cities south of the border,” says Francine Prose in The New York Times. There’s no better way to counter the stereotypes than “to experience first hand the country’s physical beauty, its rich traditions, the hospitality and kindness of its people”.

Oaxaca is less than an hour’s flight from Mexico City. A colonial city as well as a World Heritage Site, Oaxaca offers “a concentrated education in Mexico’s culture and complex heritage… [including] brightly coloured houses, pleasant public squares and stately churches, all set in the midst of a gorgeous desert landscape”.

Though there are periodic eruptions of political tension – several buildings bear the scars of a teachers’ strike in 2016 – the city “continues to feel friendly, safe and welcoming”. The recent earthquakes that damaged Mexico City thankfully failed to shake Oaxaca, as it is home to some of Mexico’s most important archaeological sites. Half an hour away by car is the ancient city of Mitla, which functioned as a religious centre for the Zapotec civilisation. Monte Albán, on the outskirts of the city, boasts a vast complex of pyramids as well as a variety of carved bas reliefs. In Oaxaca itself there are churches that exemplify the ways in which the Spanish conquistadors imported their religion and culture. Even for those with a limited interest in history, “Oaxaca is a wonderful place to be… to spend time in the food, flower and handicrafts markets, and – not insignificantly – to eat”.

A spontaneous tour guide

The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan
The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan:
one of Mexico’s greatest hits

For a somewhat more riotous time, head to Mexico City. “The first morning in the Mexican capital we left the hotel and stepped into the swirl of pedestrian traffic on the Paseo de la Reforma,” recalls Joyce Gregory Wyels in the LA Times. Standing befuddled, a “neatly dressed stranger” called Enrique approached and offered to be the guide for the day. “We fairly leapt at his offer, even though this is not and has never been a recommended method of hiring a guide. We got lucky.”

Soon Wyels and her husband found themselves scaling the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, 30 miles from Mexico City. By the end of the week, Enrique had taken them through “a list of the capital’s greatest hits: the cathedral and National Palace in the Zócalo, Chapultepec Park and its museums, folklórico dancing at the Palacio de Bellas Artes [and] colourful boats plying the canals in Xochimilco”.

Enrique also drove to the silver mining town of Taxco, about 110 miles from Mexico City, with a stop in Cuernavaca to admire Diego Rivera’s murals. “I had barely settled into my airline seat for the flight home before I vowed to return, and I have – to coastal resorts and colonial cities, to Cuernavaca for language lessons, to archaeological sites from Chihuahua to Chiapas.”

Magical towns and perfect beaches

Baja California Unesco biosphere reserve
The Unesco biosphere reserve is scattered with unspoilt beaches

Mexico is perfect for beach holidays too. The state of Baja California “is scattered with unspoilt beaches and enchanting towns that are more affordable than the Americanised resorts  at its southernmost tip”, says Duncan Tucker in The Guardian. Take a tour to Isla Espiritu Santo, one of 244 desert islands that form a Unesco biosphere reserve. Covered in cacti and set amid turquoise waters, it is “an uninhabited, alien-looking landscape”. Also visit the adjacent Isla Partida, home to Playa Ensenada Grande, “a contender for Mexico’s most beautiful beach”. North of La Paz, between the Sea of Cortez and the Sierra de la Giganta, lies the town of Loreto. It was founded in 1697 and is one of 111 Pueblos Mágicos (magical towns) Mexico has tipped for “natural beauty, cultural value or historical significance”.